HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- It came down to a dramatic play at the plate with two away in the bottom of the ninth inning, but the Rice baseball team was defeated by Southern Miss 3-2 in Sunday's Championship Final of the Conference USA Tournament in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Rice, which is now 35-22 on the season, saw its eye-opening streak of winning 20-straight conference championships (claimed during either the regular season or in the league's postseason tournament) come to an end. In addition to 16 regular season titles won in two different leagues, the Owls have also won six C-USA Tournament titles in the last eleven years. The Blue & Gray have also won three WAC Tournament titles and the final SWC crown in 1996.
Entering the 2016 C-USA Tournament as the No. 4 seed, the Owls certainly fought for a 21st-straight conference title all the way to the very end.
Southern Miss got a big strikeout out for the second out of the inning to bring the crowd of almost 3,600 at USM's Pete Taylor Park to their feet. Dayne Wunderlich followed with a double to the gap in left-center. Gray scored easily from second. Lewis was in motion from first with two outs and aggressively dashed for home. The Eagles made the defensive relay, a pair of relay throws in fact, and were able to apply the tag for the final out on a close play at the plate.
Rice struck for the first run of the game in the bottom of the second inning. Gray clubbed a leadoff double to right-center field. Walks to Teykl and Dominic DiCaprio loaded the stations. Wunderlich punched a one-out single into left for a 1-0 lead.
The Owls had held the Southern Miss off the board over the first four frames, including stranding a runner at third in the third, and then getting a big double play with runners on first and second in the fourth. Rice was its own worst enemy with free passes leading to a Golden Eagle run in the fifth.
Chuckie Robinson led off with a single, but consecutive walks loaded the bases with none away. Rice made a move to Duplantier out the bullpen to replace starter Willy Amador. Robinson alertly scored on a wild pitch to tie the game 1-1, but three strikeouts ended the threats without any further damage on the scoreboard.
For good measure Duplantier then struck out the final two batters of the sixth after a runner reached base as a part of two Rice fielding errors in the inning. The right-hander from Katy, Texas, was in a groove piling up six strikeouts for his first 2.0 innings.
Duplantier was in command, but USM touched him for the deciding run in the top of the eighth inning. Tim Lynch drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. He scored on a two-out double off the wall in left-center by Daniel Keating for the narrow 2-1 advantage that was the Eagles' first lead of the day.
Southern Miss is now 40-18 on the season. Each of the four meetings with USM this season was decided by a single run.
A good sign for Rice's national postseason prospects is the Owls finished the day with 10 ten hits. The Blue & Gray has reached double-digit hits six times in the last seven games. The official NCAA Tournament field will be announced Monday (May 30) at 11 am.